Last Tuesday’s 75th convening of the United Nations General Assembly, the world’s most pretentious Zoom meeting, passed almost unnoticed while the most important actions in global diplomacy occurred far beyond it.
In “The Gathering Storm,” the first volume of Winston Churchill’s history of World War II, he wrote that it was “the unnecessary war” caused by the “unwisdom” of the victors of World War I. It has been clear at least since 1981 that Tehran will not cease its efforts to obtain nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them without being forced to do so. Iran’s threats to wipe Israel off the map mean that Tehran cannot be trusted with such weapons.
War with Iran should not be inevitable, but the same sort of “unwisdom” displayed by China, France, the United Kingdom and Germany over the past few weeks have likely made it so.
On Sept. 21, President Trump issued an executive order which, he said, re-invoked the U.N.’s economic sanctions on Iran and continued its arms embargo against Iran scheduled to expire on Oct. 18. Only two other members of the U.N. — Israel and the Dominican Republic — stand with the United States. The rest are more eager to appease Iran than to take action that might prevent war - even nuclear war - with it.
Because Britain, France and Germany refuse to support his efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, Mr. Trump is almost as alone as Churchill thought England was 80 years ago. In June 1940, in his immortal speech after the Dunkirk evacuation, Churchill promised that the U.K. would fight on for years, even if alone. Mr. Trump made no such promise because he knows that if former Vice President Joe Biden is elected, all his efforts to compel Iran to give up its nuclear and missile ambitions will be brought to an abrupt end.
At issue over the last two weeks was America’s attempt to invoke the “snap back” provision in former President Obama’s nuclear weapons deal with Iran, known as the Joint Cooperative Plan of Action or JCPOA.
Under the JCPOA, Iran was relieved of the economic sanctions the U.N. Security Council had imposed on the promise that it would live up to the terms of the agreement. And, in Mr. Obama’s words, the agreement provided that any signatory could re-invoke the sanctions - make them “snap back” - if Iran violated the agreement.
Iran has repeatedly violated the agreement by, among other things, enriching uranium beyond the amounts permitted by the agreement and by concealing its nuclear weapons development from U.N. inspectors.
Iran has the knowledge, the means and the intent to produce nuclear weapons. For years, experts have been informing us that Iran was two or more years from being able to manufacture a nuclear weapon. But according to an April 2020 report by the Institute for Science and International Security, Iran’s breakout time - the time required for them to produce enough enriched uranium to fuel nuclear weapons — has been reduced to less than four months.
These facts are inconvenient. None of our fellow signatories to the JCPOA admit that Iran has breached its obligations under the deal.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, armed with a legal opinion that says that despite Mr. Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the JCPOA we are entitled to invoke the “snap back” provision, insists that we have done so, including a permanent arms embargo. But the other parties to the agreement - Russia, China, the U.K., France and Germany - say that because we have quit the agreement we lack standing to invoke the snapback. The U.N. Security Council rejected a U.S. motion to invoke the snapback last month.
Those nations, and others, are also looking forward to mid-October when the U.N. arms embargo on Iran expires. Russia and China will sell Iran combat aircraft, ships, radars, air defense systems and more. Oil-hungry China will trade them for Iranian oil, relieving Iran from paying for them because - thanks to Mr. Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, the Iranian economy is in tatters.
That leaves Mr. Trump with one last weapon: economic sanctions against those nations that sell weapons to Iran. Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s special envoy for Iran and Venezuela, has made clear that such sanctions would have a significant impact on arms manufacturers and dealers selling to Iran.
But, as The Wall Street Journal pointed out on Sept. 16, those nations can afford to wait until our November election is decided. Mr. Biden will, as he has said, rejoin the JCPOA and thus revoke Mr. Trump’s sanctions. There will be no arms embargo on Iran unless we enforce one.
Iran, too, can afford to wait out our election. They will, in secret, continue their development of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.
The perverse “unwisdom” of France and the U.K. closely parallels theirs of the post-World War I era. Their perfidious decision, joined in by Germany, and the predictable decisions of Russia and China, can only result in a vastly more powerful nuclear-armed Iran.
The only alternative is for Mr. Trump to be reelected and for him to continue his “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran. If that happens, it will result in the fall of the regime and, thus, the avoidance of an otherwise inevitable war.
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”
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